A Philippine soldier inspects IDs of poll clerks carrying ballot boxes filled with votes to be counted. (Reuters) 

Additional Reporting by By Rexcel Sorza, IOL Correspondent

LAMITAN, Philippines, August 8, 2005 (IslamOnline.net & News Agencies) – Residents of a self-governing Muslim-majority region in the southern Philippines voted for new leaders Monday, August 8, in a poll that risks undermining a nine-year-old peace deal with rebels.

More than a million residents were eligible to cast their ballots in the elections held every three years for a new governor, vice governor and 24 seats in the regional assembly, Reuters reported.

Zhaldy Datu Puti Ampatuan, son of a powerful provincial governor, is heavily favored to win the governorship ahead of Mahid Mutilan and Ibrahim Paglas.

The impoverished Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) includes the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur and the city of Marawi.

The elections are seen as a key test of the government’s ability to hold credible polls amid allegations of vote fraud that have shaken Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s presidency.

Massive buying of votes, however, have been reported with each voter allegedly paid 50-100 pesos ($1=P55) to cast his/her vote for a certain candidate.

Commission on Elections chairperson Benjamin Abalos said it would take two days for the tallying to be finished and winners to be officially declared Wednesday, August 10.

The government of the mainly Catholic Philippines granted the region self-rule under a 1996 peace treaty that ended the Moro National Liberation Front’s (MNLF) decades-old armed secessionist campaign. The region had been ruled by the MNLF since then.

Social Woes
Lawyer Nasser Marohomsalic, convener of Union of Muslims for Morality and Truth (UMMAT) and former commissioner of the Commission on Human Rights, said the new leaders are expected to find solutions to the sluggish economy of Mindanao and ARMM.

“ARMM provinces such as Maguindanao, Lanao, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu have very dire economic situations. Unable to move on its progress, it remains that seven out of every 10 (or even more) persons there are living in poverty,” Marohomsalic told IslamOnline.net Monday.

Prior to the Philippine military-led war in Mindanao in 2000 and 2003, the ARMM already ranked among the poorest regions of the country, he further said.

“The infant and maternal mortality and sickness rates are the highest in the country and life expectancy (55 years) is 13 years short of the national average, which itself is well below that of developed nations. Only three out of every 10 children who enter elementary school manage to complete their courses,” Marohomsalic added.

Cosain Naga Jr., of the SUARA Bangsamoro Party, added that the ARMM territory has been the “hotbed” of the state’s anti-Muslim policies.

“The Arroyo government, as well as the past presidencies, has failed to show genuine reform in terms of the state’s peace policy in Mindanao despite the establishment of the ARMM,” he told IOL.

“How can the Moro people have faith in the ARMM when it has failed to stand up to the administration’s warmongering policies in Mindanao.” he asked